Yesterday I was listening to an interview with Karen Armstrong, the author of A History of God. In the interview, she mentioned that the word "amateur" comes from a Latin word meaning "one who loves".
This got me thinking about sports. I know, kind of an odd jump from theology to sports. Amazing how God wires our brain together.
Recent stories regarding former USC basketball star and future NBA lottery pick O.J. Mayo have raised questions regarding his "amateur" status and, therefore, his eligibility to have played for the Trojans this past season. What I find almost laughable is that there would even be questions about his "amateur" status in the first place. People have been talking about O.J. Mayo's basketball skills since junior high school. I think I am safe in saying the only reason we can talk about O.J. Mayo as a "former USC basketball star" is because the NBA forced athletes to wait 1 year after their high school graduation to enter the draft. In short, it was a foregone conclusion years ago that O.J. Mayo was going to be a professional basketball player. That was his plan and his purpose. So when exactly was it that Mayo was playing simply "for the love of the game"? His eyes have been on an NBA paycheck for awhile.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Mayo is wrong for this. If he has the kind of talent and skill that would allow him to enter the NBA and that is what he wants to do for a living, then I fully support his ability to do that. My point is that I think that elite athletes stop playing simply "for the love of the game" well before they sign a professional contract. Is it therefore appropriate to call them "amateurs"? For the NCAA to be involved in this discussion is ludicrous. College athletics is "amateur" only in the sense that the athletes aren't paid. However, the institutions receive millions of dollars every year from the efforts of these athletes. Add to that the level of exposure college athletes receive and the celebrity status that they can enjoy, and it gets hard to tell where college ends and professional begins.
I know that I am speaking generally here, that there are more anonymous athletes than there are stars, that there are plenty of men and women playing sports that will never get coverage and never sign professional athletic contracts. These are true amateurs, people who are playing their sport because they love to play. Yet what I find amazing is that there are hundreds of NCAA regulations about what scholar athletes can and can't do, and I would argue none of those regulations are about these true amateurs. They are there, instead, to regulate the handful of athletes who are looking to play not only for love of the game, but for the gaining of personal wealth as well. Why are true amateurs forced to follow rules probably not written with them in mind, and why are we trying to force a label of amateur onto a handful of athletes who don't want it in the first place?
I am all for encouraging young men and women to get a good education. I think that professional sports, especially the NBA, has been weakened by the years of bringing in players who had professional talent but not yet professional physical or emotional maturity. However, I also think that the ideal of amateur athletics left harbor a long time ago, maybe when recruiting rankings for high school freshmen started coming out. If there is such concern for the integrity of amateur athletics, then perhaps it is time to stop trying to force athletes who have no interest in being amateurs to "play" amateurs.